• Mariah Heller

Neck Pain or Tension Headaches? TRY THIS.

Mariah Heller of Pain-Free Fitness

Neck pain can be debilitating. Not only can it cause a decreased range of motion and difficultly performing everyday activities, but it can also be a contributing factor to those nasty tension headaches you get in the afternoons (or evenings…or mornings) at work. SUPER brief anatomy lesson: many of the muscles that we associate with our shoulders and upper back have attachment points at the base of the skull or the cervical (neck) vertebrae. Additionally, the muscles in the upper back and shoulder region tend to get “locked long” due to the muscles in and around our chest being chronically shortened. This is why hours of neck-focused massage and stretches might disappoint you by providing only short-term relief – we’ve got to take a 360-degree approach to get to the many root causes of this tension.

Let’s start with the three areas that tend to be the biggest culprits in neck tension and headaches: the suboccipitals, the upper traps, and the pec minor muscles.


1) Suboccipitals.

a. This is a group of muscles that are under (sub) the back of your skull (occiput or occipital bone). You can locate them by feeling the bottom ridge of your skull that separates your skull bone from your neck. On either side of your spine right along this ridge, you should be able to palpate some some ropey and spongey muscle tissue that is probably pretty darn sensitive to the touch. Start by taking a reinforced finger (crossed is best), and placing it along that occipital ridge just to the right side of your spine. Start with some small circles, applying pressure. Then, hold pressure in one spot, and move your head and neck through some range of motion, keeping the pressure in the same spot. Move the fingers along that occipital ridge closer to the ear, and repeat. Do this for about a minute, until you feel you’ve run out of muscle tissue (when you run into bone), and repeat on the other side.

2) Upper traps.

a. If you don’t have tight upper traps, you may not be human. The upper traps are prime tension-holding territory. These muscles not only make us look super buff, but also happen to have their insertion point right at the back of the skull and the cervical vertebrae. The technique for the upper traps is almost exactly the same as the one described above. Take your fingers (this time in more of a “hook” grip), place tension down into your upper trap muscles, and move the head and neck. Repeat for one minute per side, hitting a couple of different points as you go.

3) Pecs

a. While the pec muscles don’t necessarily attach at the neck, they greatly affect our posture and shoulder position which can contribute to neck pain and tension. To locate the most common triggerpoints on the pecs: locate the collarbone, move down about two inches below it, and move to the outer chest (about an inch away from your chest/shoulder separation). Perform the SAME technique that you did previously; put some pressure in the pec muscles and move the head and neck. Find a few tight spots to apply pressure, and repeat this for about 1:00 per side.

Questions? Comments? Contact me at or reach out on Instagram at @coachmariahpainfreefitness.

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